More than a decade ago, Korean Americans were silent participants in the political process, so unknown that we discovered them by chance, through a computer program.
A colleague, Henry Weinstein, and I had been trying to figure out the business connections of the political contributors who financed city elections. Overwhelmed by the piles of reports, Weinstein asked the late Bud Lewis, then head of the Times Poll, if he could devise a computer program that would sort the material by name and occupation.
When we checked the printouts, we saw Kims, Chungs, Lees--one Korean name after another. The computer saw what our reporters' eyes had missed--the entrance of another immigrant community into the mainstream of American political life.
We called the donors. We found they were obliging and generous contributors to the campaigns of City Council members and Mayor Tom Bradley. And unappreciated, as the Korean American community found out during and following the 1992 riot.
Arsonists and looters destroyed hundreds of markets, liquor stores, swap meets and other businesses owned by Korean Americans. The Saturday after the riots several thousand Korean Americans gathered in a Mid-Wilshire park near Koreatown to protest the damage inflicted on them and their properties. "We are angry at the reaction and the slowness of the Police Department and the National Guard," one of the organizers told me that day. "We are very disappointed in Bradley. We make a lot of donations to the mayor and to the City Council but there was no response from them."
If that wasn't enough, Korean Americans ran into an unyielding wall of opposition when they attempted to rebuild.
A series of restrictions by the Planning Commission appointed by Mayor Bradley--the man they had so enthusiastically backed--and the council made reconstruction all but impossible.
Korean Americans demonstrated and attended goodwill meetings with African American and Latino South-Central L.A. residents who wanted the liquor stores closed. But only a small number of Korean-owned stores with liquor licenses had been rebuilt.
You can argue that the outcome was good, that South-Central L.A., afflicted with drugs and alcohol, needed a sharp reduction in the number of liquor outlets.
But that misses the point. Goodness is not a criteria at City Hall. All kinds of bad causes are endorsed if they are backed by a combination of political contributions, skillful lobbyists and representatives from an influential community.
The Jewish and African American communities figured this out long ago. They contributed, especially the Jewish community. But they did much more. They got their people elected and mastered the art of dominating the political stage in noisy L.A.
The Korean Americans understood that contributions are part of the equation, but most didn't get the rest of it.
A few did.
In 1982, Korean Americans here had a voter registration drive, the first in the community's history. After the election, leaders disbanded the organization. But three young men, T.S. Chung, Charles Kim and Duncan Lee, realized the work had just started.
"We had registered 3,000 people and we felt we had to keep after it," Chung told me. "We felt the community needed to do something about training new leaders; we needed something geared toward civil rights and political empowerment."
They formed the Korean American Coalition, patterned after the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Japanese American Citizens League. In the past 10 years, the coalition has registered 13,000 voters, held leadership conferences for Korean American students in about 40 colleges and developed an internship program that places young people in politics, journalism, the law and other influential occupations.
On Monday, the coalition called a news conference at its modest mid-Wilshire headquarters on the edge of Koreatown to tell of plans for its first national political convention to be held Saturday at the Radisson Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles.
Korean American officeholders and political activists will exchange ideas on winning elections and influencing policy. And memories of the riot will be recalled.
"The 1992 riot changed perceptions," Charles Kim, the coalition president, told the news conference. "They felt that 'this is my homeland' and saw a need to participate."
Only by doing that will the Korean American community prevent a repeat of what happened to them in the spring of '92.